Written by Matt Woodcock
Four years after starting one of the most difficult but rewarding experiences of my life, I was hit with one of the questions that makes basketball so special… “What’s next?” As a player, it was relatively easy to answer that question, I could be getting back for the next possession in transition defense, or I could be setting my next screen after a pass in our offense. This time though, it was a life question for which I did not have a real concrete answer. Staying involved in basketball as a Coach was something that was in the back of my mind, but I wasn’t exactly sure where to start. There are several other questions that have helped shape the coaching journey I am currently on. My hope is that my recent experiences can shed some light on the journey of an aspiring coach in the US college system.
Where do I start?
One of the major difficulties for people starting out in any profession is that it is really difficult to get a job without any formal experience, and it is really difficult to get any formal experience without a job! The coaching experience I had up until I got my first coaching position was restricted to volunteering at summer camps and my knowledge of the college game was almost strictly passing through the lens of a player. This meant that I was not a realistic candidate for full-time assistant coaching positions at the college level and needed to gain some actual coaching experience. Going back to school to pursue a master’s degree as a graduate assistant (GA) coach was an ideal option for me as it would afford me some time to gain experience as well as further my education for the potential to apply for those coaching positions that require a master’s degree in the future. This was how I got my start, as a GA for the assistant Coach I played for in college when he got his first head coaching job – Sean Dooley at Baker University.
What is most important?
Ok, I just accepted a position to help coach a college team for very little money in a very small town where I knew exactly one family. I Skyped my parents to give them the exciting news, they were extremely supportive (as always – Thanks Mum and Dad!), and as I am telling them the million things I had to get done before I started coaching I began to become incredibly overwhelmed with the magnitude of change that was about to happen. This change was one similar to what had happened to me a few years prior as I was leaving Australia for the first time to begin my freshman year of college. There were questions running through my head constantly, so many things I was unsure of, and none of them were really as important as: Do I really want to be a coach? This was the most important thing I had to get answered in my mind. If the answer was no, there is no shot that I would be still here in the states trying to learn much as I can about what it takes to be a really good coach. Since the answer was yes, everything else could be justified because it was what was required for me to get up, move to a new state, and begin the coaching journey I am on.
How can I help?
Hopefully you have a better idea of how you can help your team, your head coach, or your association than I did when I first started my first job. I was blissfully unaware of the volume of work coaches do and the many different hats that they have to wear in order to successfully run a small college basketball program. I found myself ordering and organizing practice/travel gear, shoes, and bags in my first week because that was where I could be most helpful. One thing I have learned as a GA is, if I can figure out ways to give the other coaches some more time, everyone benefits from that. I get to learn more about whatever I am working on, and they get to spend time on the things that aren’t necessarily more important, but take priority at that time. I found that since I was enrolled in online classes, I was able to work with the individual players during the day and Coach Dooley had time to get administrative responsibilities completed. This benefited the program because Coach Dooley was able to spend his time focusing on team as a whole. Player development was one of the first aspects of the program that I was given full creative control over. It was a fantastic training ground for me to work with players on their individual games and see their improvement throughout the season. Figuring out where I can be helpful, taking ownership of that area, and learning as much as I can about that area is how I have approached the steep learning curve of seeing the game through the coach’s lens.
Where should I be?
I quickly found out that this can be a dangerous question to ask yourself. The more coaches I have had the chance to meet, talk to, and learn from, the more I have realized that every coach’s journey is unique. I initially compared myself to other coaches in ability, age, and experience, usually asking myself where they were at this stage. This was not a great confidence boost! While comparing my experience as a coach to established coaches that have more experience than me, I have realized that this is not the most effective way to spend my time. My path to becoming a coach is exactly that: my path. Being an Australian graduate assistant living in the US has definitely posed some challenges for me, considering the student and work visas I require, but this has also shown some great advantages, like the knowledge of and access to international leagues, competition, and teaching methods. One of the very best parts of navigating my coaching journey is that I have seen that you can look back and connect the dots to figure out how you got to where you are. Engaging with what I am currently doing, doing it to the best of my ability, and being as helpful to the team and coaching staff as possible has allowed me to place another dot along the path toward my growth and development as a coach and as a person.
There are many questions that have come up to this point, and there are many more that will follow as I progress through this year. I am currently working on a scouting report for our next opponent and hoping to contribute in some way to the growth of this year’s team at Columbia College. Adding value to the team and to others is one of the great things about coaching. My hope is that I can share some of the things that have helped me, some of the things that have not, and show that questioning “What’s next?” is not only confined to the players on the court.